19 for 19 - Diarmuid Connolly one of many GAA personalities facing defining year
As inter-county teams face new campaigns across the country, Martin Breheny and Michael Verney consider who could be making the headlines this year
1. DIARMUID CONNOLLY (DUBLIN)
Does he want to play for Dublin again? Do Dublin want, or indeed, need him? Those are questions that only he and the Dublin management can answer, but the fact remains that a fully fit and tuned-in Connolly, who is still only 31 years old, would have a role to play in the five-in-a-row bid. Unlike previous years when Mayo tested Dublin to the limit, they won the 2018 All-Ireland title without ever being stretched to the limit so they didn’t require Connolly’s special brand of talent. It might not be the same this year.
2. AIDAN WALSH (CORK)
When he won an All-Ireland football medal and an All-Star award as a 20-year old in 2010, the Kanturk midfielder looked as if he would be one of the biggest names in the game for the next decade. It hasn’t worked out that way. Cork’s decline and his switch to hurling, where he had mixed fortunes, for a few seasons saw Walsh’s career stall to some degree. Time isn’t exactly running out but he is at a stage where he needs to re-assert himself. Otherwise, he risks falling into the category of having been a marvellous young talent who didn’t develop as expected.
3. TOMMY WALSH (KERRY)
Recalled to the Kerry set-up after signing himself off in 2016, this is his last real chance to achieve a goal which was very much on his mind when he returned from Australia in 2014 after several seasons playing AFL. It was generally assumed that he would resume at the high levels he had reached in 2008-2009 but it didn’t quite work out like that.
Injuries had taken their toll and he struggled to make the required impact. However, he had a good season with Kerins O’ Rahilly’s last year, obviously doing enough to convince new manager Peter Keane that he has something to offer in the rebuilding work currently going on in the Kingdom.
4. AIDAN O’SHEA (MAYO)
It might seem strange to suggest that he has something to prove, yet there’s a feeling that he hasn’t quite taken hold of any particular season in a manner expected of such a natural talent. His Mayo colleagues Andy Moran and Lee Keegan have won Footballer of the Year awards over the last few seasons but despite winning three All-Stars, O’ Shea hasn’t reached that level. This will be his 12th season as a Mayo senior but he’s still only 28 years old so there’s plenty left in the tank. But can he assert himself in a manner that makes the vital difference for Mayo in their bid to end the All-Ireland famine?
5. PAUL FLYNN (CEO GPA)
Appointed as head of the inter-county players’ organisation last June after a six-month period without a full-time CEO, Dublin’s four-time All-Star is still working his way into the role but will know that 2019 is a very important year for him and the GPA. Whether or not the GPA accepts it, there’s a growing feeling in the GAA that it’s an elitist body in need of a value and ideals adjustment. Also, most creativity is expected of them in terms of coming up with ideas rather than merely reacting to proposals from others, more often than not in a negative fashion.
6. LIAM SHEEDY (TIPPERARY)
If circumstances were different, he might well be sitting in Croke Park as GAA director-general, but instead he is back as Tipp boss at a time when there’s an air of uncertainty in the Premier County. It was probably always written in the stars that the 2010 All-Ireland-winning manager would return to the helm and when Michael Ryan departed after last year’s championship the timing was right for Sheedy. New managers – or even those who return for a second stint – usually get some leeway in their first season but that luxury is not available to Sheedy in a county where success is expected as if by right.
7. KIERAN McGEENEY (ARMAGH)
Having worked under Paul Grimley in 2014, McGeeney, who spent six seasons as Kildare manager, was handed the Armagh reins ahead of the 2015 season. Such was the Armagh county board’s confidence in their former All-Ireland-winning captain that they gave him a five-year term. Armagh have won no Ulster championship game under McGeeney and while they reached the All-Ireland quarter-final via the qualifiers last year, the lack of progress at provincial level has disappointed a county that has also found it difficult to come to terms with spells in Division 3.
8. KEVIN O’DONOVAN (CORK)
A county secretary with a point to prove? Yes, when you are replacing a man who held the position for 46 years and you come in at a time when your county is mired in a controversy for which there is no quick-fix. The Páirc Uí Chaoimh overspend certainly won’t be O’Donovan’s sole responsibility but it will be very much in the background. How Cork run their other affairs while all this is going on will be closely monitored, requiring O’Donovan to stamp his authority early and effectively.
9. SHANE DOWLING (LIMERICK)
A super-sub role always attracts headlines when the player involved consistently does well in a limited timespan, but it’s not nearly as satisfying for him as being in the first 15. Dowling did exceptionally well as a sub, especially against Cork in the All-Ireland semi-final when he scored 1-4, and against Galway in the final when he poached a vital goal, but it’s not the role he wants to continue in. Competition for places in the Limerick attack is intense and while Dowling has to dislodge one of the regular starting six, it’s a challenge he will take on with maximum zeal this year.
10. CONOR McDONALD (WEXFORD)
He signed off last season by scoring 1-3 in the defeat by Clare in the All-Ireland quarter-final, underlining his capacity to present major problems for defences. However, he hasn’t been doing it as often as his performances suggested during his U-21 days when it looked as if he would develop into a Wexford great. At the age of 23, he still has time to do that and certainly has the range of skills to make it happen, but he needs to have a really consistent season to take him to the next level. It’s well within his range.
11.KYLE CONEY (TYRONE)
Restored to Mickey Harte’s panel for the first time since 2015, he has a lot to prove to himself, the Tyrone supporters and the wider public. He stood out as a major star of the future during his minor days and when he decided against pursuing a career in Australian Rules, it looked like a big gain for Tyrone. However, he found the step-up to senior level very difficult and as his frustration levels grew, his form dipped even further until he eventually left the panel four years ago. Now aged 28, he has a second chance which he is good enough to take.
12. SARAH ROWE (MAYO)
With Cora Staunton’s glittering inter-county career with Mayo likely to be over, star forward Rowe will be expected to take up the mantle as the Connacht side bid for their first All-Ireland senior crown since 2003. Rowe, an Ireland U-17 and U-19 soccer international, is spending the winter with Aussie Rules side Collingwood but the 23-year-old will be an important cog in Peter Leahy’s Mayo upon her return as they aim to bounce back from a turbulent 2018.
13. MICKEY GRAHAM (CAVAN)
How can a man who has led a small club in Longford (Mullinalaghta) to a Leinster club football title, and who is now planning for an All-Ireland semi-final, got anything to prove? It’s all about ambition and while Graham will do all he can to prolong the Mullinalaghta fairytale, he is also starting out as Cavan manager. There’s a feeling in Cavan – and indeed beyond – that they have underachieved in recent years, leaving Graham with big responsibilities right from the start.
14. EDDIE BRENNAN (LAOIS)
None of them will admit it publicly of course, but several of the Kilkenny high-achievers who won so much as players under Brian Cody are working towards putting themselves at the top of queue after his departure, however long they may have to wait. Despite a none-too-convincing stint as Kilkenny U-21 manager, Brennan is on that list and is now taking the audition to senior level with Laois. It’s a tough assignment in a county with a high managerial turnover, but if he is seen to make progress it will certainly raise his managerial stock.
15. DAMIAN McERLAIN (DERRY)
He was appointed Derry senior manager at the end of August 2017 at a time when he was preparing the minor team for the All-Ireland final against Kerry. It was an exciting time for him but Kerry wrecked the happy vibes, winning the final by 24 points. McErlain had a difficult first season with the seniors too as they slumped into Division 4, four seasons after contesting the Division 1 final. They later failed to win any championship game. McErlain’s confidence reserves are being severely tested.
16. JACK COONEY (WESTMEATH)
‘Shop local’ certainly hasn’t been a policy in Westmeath football. But after wandering across borders in search of managers over many years, they have now settled on a man they overlooked in the past. Cooney has previous experience as a selector in Westmeath and also worked with Rory Gallagher in Donegal, but this is his first time at No 1. He will be very anxious to prove himself as a home-grown Westmeath boss.
17. JAMES HORAN (MAYO)
Back in charge after a four-season absence, the obvious point he has to prove is that Mayo are good enough to end the All-Ireland drought. There will be no first-season pass for him, because with many of the squad in the veteran stage, it’s all about this year for them. Horan has a sense of unfinished business which also raises the stakes in a county that remains bewildered by its failure to make the All-Ireland breakthrough.
18. ANN DOWNEY (KILKENNY)
Downey is a sporting icon having been directly involved in all 13 of Kilkenny’s All-Ireland senior camogie titles, 12 as a player and the other as manager when they last lifted the O’Duffy Cup in 2016. Despite winning three league titles in succession (2016-’18), Cork have narrowly had their number in the last two All-Ireland deciders with heartbreaking one-point final defeats, and Downey will be keen to right those wrongs this year.
19. PADDY TALLY (DOWN)
He is credited with playing a big part in Tyrone’s first All-Ireland success in 2003 and later worked with James McCartan in Down and Brian McIver in Derry. He was drafted into the Galway camp by Kevin Walsh last year and oversaw a vast improvement in defence. There’s a theory that good No.2s don’t always succeed in the top job, something that Tally will be out to disprove with a Down side that’s in urgent need of inspiration after dropping into Division 3.